If your cable or phone company came to your house and asked you if they could install recording devices in every room so everything you did in the privacy of your own home was recorded for posterity on their servers, what would you say? Most folks would probably balk at such a request. What would be next? Invite the government in to install recording devices? Isn’t that the Big Brother outcome that George Orwell predicted in his novel “1984“? Well, yes it is. And sorry folks, that era is already upon us.
It all started with the camera in laptops or connected to home desktop computers. Ostensibly for video teleconferences with family, friends, and colleagues, and for taking quick selfies, horror set in when it was discovered by the public that hackers were hijacking the camera feeds and using them to spy on and blackmail people. No problem. Many of us just placed a piece of opaque tape or folded paper over the camera when we were not using it.
Next up on the slippery slope was the microphone on our cell phones. It turned out that cell phones were basically owned by the telephone companies, and rented to the user. The telephone company commanded access to anything on the phone that they wanted. Location data, text files, photos, software settings, and…the audio feed from the microphone. This was useful to the government, who could surreptitiously turn on the microphones of phones that they were authorized to tap, and record anything within range of the pickup.
Hollywood has had some fun with these back door intrusions, whether in “Enemy of the State”, “The Good Wife”, “Minority Report”, or any of a number of conspiracy-minded shows and movies.
Then came the “virtual assistant” devices from Google and Amazon. Essentially nothing but a microphone, speaker, and some sophisticated voice recognition software that is connected to the Internet, the devices are supposedly there to respond to voice commands to search for information, or better yet, buy things from their makers. They are supposed to only record audio upon the reception of a key word (“Alexa”, for instance), but of course that begs the question…doesn’t that mean the device is always listening? And if it is always listening, isn’t that information always being recorded on the Google and Amazon servers? And if it is always being recorded on the servers, doesn’t that mean the government has access to it?
Yeah, it does. Happy goldfish bowl, citizens.